CVM Faculty Members to Promote Canine Health with New Research Grants

Story by Megan Myers

Drs. Nick and Unity Jeffery, a husband-and-wife duo at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVM), have received canine health research grants from the American Kennel Club’s (AKC) Canine Health Foundation (CHF).

Dr. Unity Jeffery
Dr. Unity Jeffery

In celebration of its 25th anniversary, the AKC CHF awarded more than $2.1 million in 36 new canine health research grants in February. The selected projects were chosen based on their ability to meet the highest scientific standards and to have the greatest potential to advance the health of all dogs.

In her Dogs Helping Dogs Laboratory, Unity Jeffery, an assistant professor in the CVM’s Department of Veterinary Pathobiology (VTPB), will conduct research for her grant “Tumor-educated Platelets: A Minimally Invasive Liquid Biopsy for Early Cancer Diagnosis.”

Studies in human medicine have shown that RNA in blood platelets is a promising marker for various types of cancer.

Unity Jeffery’s study, in collaboration with Drs. Emma Warry, Jonathan Lidbury, and Chris Dolan, from the CVM’s Department of Small Animal Clinical Sciences (VSCS), will act as a proof of principle to determine if this information is translational into canine medicine.

If so, her research may be the first step in developing a blood-based screening test or liquid biopsy for canine cancer.

“One of the big problems with cancer in dogs is that because dogs can’t talk, they can’t let us know when they’re starting to feel just a little bit unwell or show very mild symptoms,” she said. “That means that we often don’t diagnose cancer in dogs until very late, when the cancer’s already widespread throughout the body.”

By using a test that can detect cancer earlier, veterinarians may be able to use more targeted treatment protocols that have reduced side effects.

“The hope of early diagnosis is that maybe that’s your chance to fully eliminate the cancer rather than just prolong life,” she said.

Dr. Nick Jeffery
Dr. Nick Jeffery

Meanwhile, CVM professor and neurologist Nick Jeffery will be working to extend results from a previous research project for his grant “Clinical Trial of Prevotella histicola Supplementation to Ameliorate Meningoencephalomyelitis of Unknown Origin (MUO).”

In a previous project, Nick Jeffery found that dogs with MUO, a disease of the central nervous system that resembles multiple sclerosis in humans, have an unusual balance of bacteria in their guts. Particularly, one bacteria that is known for controlling inflammation was consistently at lower levels.

His project will focus on providing supplements of that reduced bacteria to dogs with MUO to hopefully improve the disease’s outcome.

“We’re going to culture the bacteria and then put them into capsules that dogs can take every day,” he said. “The idea is that it will help us get better control of the disease, which is quite serious and quite a lot of dogs will die of it. We’re hoping that by supplementing with this bacteria, we might improve their survival.”

In addition to improving the survival of dogs with MUO, the bacterial supplement could also provide a way to reduce the use of immunosuppressive drugs, improving the dogs’ overall health and wellbeing.

Similar to the translational aspect of Unity Jeffery’s project, Nick’s may also one day play a role in human medicine by suggesting a new treatment method for multiple sclerosis.

“I was very pleased to get the grant, especially since it was a follow up on a previous study,” he said. “It’s fantastic to try out bacterial supplementation. This sort of approach is pretty new in all medicine, so it’s a great opportunity to test the idea and also try to fix dogs that have got a very serious condition.”

“I’m very grateful to the AKC Canine Health Foundation and the owners and breeders who donate to the charity,” Unity Jeffery said. “My Dogs Helping Dogs Lab, where we use canine patients and healthy volunteers to try to better diagnose and treat common canine diseases, fits really nicely with the AKC’s mission to improve the health of both pedigree dogs and the whole canine population. It’s a charity that I feel very honored to be funded by and very grateful for their continuing support.

“Nick and I have pet dogs at home and we love our dogs; they’re our family,” she said. “For me, I feel that I do the same type of research for my patients as a human doctor would do for theirs, and that’s what’s great about working in a veterinary school and having the opportunity to obtain funding from sources like the AKC.”

About the AKC CHF

Since 1995, the AKC Canine Health Foundation has leveraged the power of science to address the health needs of all dogs. With more than $56 million in funding to date, the Foundation provides grants for the highest quality canine health research and shares information on the discoveries that help prevent, treat and cure canine diseases. The Foundation meets and exceeds industry standards for fiscal responsibility, as demonstrated by their highest four-star Charity Navigator rating and GuideStar Platinum Seal of Transparency. Learn more at www.akcchf.org.

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Contact Information: Jennifer Gauntt, Director of Communications, Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences; jgauntt@cvm.tamu.edu; 979-862-4216

The Benefits of a Balanced Microbiome

The term “gut microbiome” is often used to refer to all the organisms—including bacteria, viruses, and fungi—that live in an animal’s gastrointestinal (GI) tract. For people and pets, these organisms have a large impact on the health of both the GI tract and the entire body.Dog eating

Dr. Audrey Cook, an associate professor at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, discusses the importance of a dog’s gut microbiome and the consequences if it were to become altered or imbalanced.

“The sheer number of organisms in a healthy gut is tremendous; any one of us has more organisms living in our GI tract than there are people on the face of the earth,” Cook said. “Although we used to think that those bacteria were just along for the ride, we now know that they play a key role in maintaining health.”

Scientists have yet to discover the gut microbiome’s full impact, but they do know that it plays a large role in a dog’s overall health and well-being, impacting GI tract function, nutrient absorption, immune status, body condition, and many important hormonal responses.

Cook compared a healthy microbiome to an ecosystem, such as a coral reef or rainforest, where organisms work both independently and in relationship with each other.

Unfortunately, many things can disrupt this complex system of microorganisms, creating a condition called dysbiosis.

“These disruptors include many medications, particularly antibiotics; infection with GI tract pathogens; changes in diet; anesthesia; stress; and starvation,” Cook said. “It can take a long time for the microbiome to return to normal after an upset.”

Though the full impact of dysbiosis is still unknown, Cook said there are a variety of symptoms that can occur because of the condition.

“Dysbiosis can result in weight loss, bloating, flatulence, poor appetite, and changes in stool consistency, such as diarrhea,” she said. “Some research in other species suggests that an abnormal microbiome may also contribute to numerous non-GI disorders, including obesity, mental illness, and type 2 diabetes.”

To avoid the effects of an unbalanced microbiome, Cook says there are several ways to foster a healthy community of gut microorganisms in a dog.

First, she recommends avoiding the unnecessary use of antibiotics, because even a short course of antibiotics can have a big impact on the gut microbiome. Antibiotics are prescribed to kill bad bacteria that cause illness or infection, but they also kill good gut bacteria in the process.

“Feeding a consistent, high-quality diet is also helpful, and we certainly want to avoid introducing pathogens such as Salmonella by feeding raw foods,” Cook said.

Probiotics are live, good microorganisms found in some foods and supplements that can contribute to a healthy gut microbiome. Many veterinary products claim to contain probiotics, but dog owners should consult with a veterinarian before choosing one of these options, as some are poorly researched.

Similarly, some dog foods contain prebiotics, such as soluble fibers that feed good bacteria, but there is only limited evidence of these foods effectively improving the health of the gut microbiome.

While feeding your dog and giving medications, pay attention to the effect they may be having on the gut microbiome. Though an altered microbiome can have negative consequences, a GI tract full of good microorganisms can be the key to a healthy dog.

Pet Talk is a service of the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, Texas A&M University. Stories can be viewed on the web at vetmed.tamu.edu/news/pet-talk. Suggestions for future topics may be directed to editor@cvm.tamu.edu.